Though Valentine’s Day may be over, the allure of a fairytale may continue for many. Internet love scams remain a popular vector in Southeast Asia and a main scam concern for many, and it is only expected to rise in the year ahead.

In 2023, $25.9 million was lost in Singapore on love scams alone, according to police’s midyear statistics. Similarly, Malaysia saw 935 investigation papers opened for love scam cases, resulting in losses totaling RM43,920,299.01. In Thailand, romance scams ranked 10th in crime cases with 1,435 cases and a total loss of over 476 million baht within a nine month period.

Criminals have tapped into the increasing use of dating apps in the region – with an estimate of 16.4 million non-paying online dating users in 2024 – to easily create both deceptive profiles and urgent scenarios to carry out scams. This includes the rise in ‘pig butchering’ tactics, where criminals lure victims into digital relationships to build trust before convincing them to invest in bogus financial instruments.

Organizations need to remain vigilant against romance schemes, especially as employees are increasingly using corporate-owned devices for personal use. This exposes the company to higher risks of cyber threats such as phishing scams, identity theft, and malware attacks.

The growing threat of AI-related love scams

The allure of the charming person you met online may be nothing more than artificial intelligence at play. In the latest in pig butchering schemes, scammers are now exploiting generative AI tools where they can easily create fake profiles, photos, conversations, voices, and identities in a matter of seconds.

Those looking for love are often more vulnerable to scams. With AI, cybercriminals use that vulnerability to their advantage by engaging in long and sophisticated attempts to steal from victims. They can cultivate a personal relationship with their victim to create compelling and convincing narratives to gain their trust and affection. This gets increasingly tricky, as people find it increasingly difficult to spot AI content.

AI-generated photos look more realistic; ChatGPT can get around the dating apps’ security measures, send likes, read replies from potential matches, and create believable profiles, while methods such as sentiment analysis analyze text content online – from the activities, feelings, and information we share – to foster an easy connection with their prey.

As love scams exploit and target one’s desire for love and companionship, victims of such scams suffer both financial loss and emotional trauma.

Red flags to look out for

Love scams follow a typical playbook. However, since scammers usually employ sophisticated methods of emotional manipulation, it may take time for you to realize that you are the victim of a scam. Keep these signs in mind to clue you into if a cyber sweetheart is out to swindle you.

When it comes to initial contact and relationship-building, scammers are looking to establish trust and rapport. They may send unexpected friend requests via social media and profess his/her love shortly after making contact with you, going to great lengths to gain your interest and trust with loving words and offers to send you gifts. Yet, they may refuse to video calls, as they often create fake personas and don’t want to reveal their true identity and will share sudden stories of misfortune to gain your sympathy and request money to help them out.

Next, comes the exploitation and deception, where scammers manipulate the victim into making payments or divulging sensitive information. They can exploit human desires to make victims react emotionally rather than rationally and may even trick you into sending them private information, that may leave you feeling vulnerable to leaks. Clinical Psychologist Dr. Annabelle Chow believes that “once cognitive errors have successfully clouded one’s judgement, that’s where emotional motivation kicks in, she added. Often, this motivation is fear, such as a fear of loss of opportunity or privilege, or fear of law enforcement.”  You may receive urgent money transfer requests from them, OTP requests, and asked to pay by credit or gift cards.

Preventative measures

Take preventative measures against financial and emotional heartbreak. If you are in a situation where you suspect you may be scammed, take a step back from the situation and independently verify what this person is telling you.

Next, take swift and decisive action to mitigate its impact, severing all ties with the perpetrator, whether through messaging or social media. Change your passwords, and if you have been involved in monetary transactions with the scammers, contact your bank immediately, so that your bank can take appropriate measures to protect your accounts and assets from further compromise.

Report signs of suspicious behavior so that the authorities or the platform where you encountered the scammer can take action against scammers wherever possible. In doing so, you can help prevent others from falling victim to similar ploys.

Finally, seek support from friends, family, or mental health professionals. Being love scammed can be emotionally traumatic, and it is important to have a support system in place to help you process your feelings and cope with the emotional fallout from a love scam.

With love scams becoming increasingly common, protect yourself from future scams by investing in tools to help you identify them, such as recognizing common red flags and enrolling in a security awareness training & user behavior course to boost your knowledge of internet scams. This can go a long way in navigating the digital landscape to protect both your heart and wallet alike.

Stanley Hsu is the regional vice president of Asia at Mimecast, an email and collaboration security company that protects over 40,000 global companies from cybersecurity threats.

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